The Behaviour of the Roman Catholics during the Siege of Derry

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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CHAPTER X...continued

5. The Jacobite army did not, upon the whole, behave in a very cruel or discreditable manner, considering the power in their hands and the amount of provocation which they received. For four months, from March till August 1689, all Ulster, except Derry and the district around Enniskillen, was completely at their mercy. They had garrisons stationed in Newry, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Omagh, and all the principal towns. If they had possessed the wish, they certainly for a time possessed the power, to act in union with the Roman Catholic population and to murder all the Protestant people, of which there were great numbers who had failed in the attempt to reach Derry or to flee across the Channel. Most of the poorer Protestants were in this helpless position, and, had the Irish peasantry pleased, they might, under protection of the King's soldiery, have repeated on a larger scale the scenes of 1641; and under pretence of helping the King to put down his enemies, have exterminated their Protestant neighbours. This is what the citizens of Derry feared, when, on the 7th of December, 1688, they shut their gates in face of the Redshanks.

It is needless to remind the reader that no such massacre took place; there was not the slightest attempt in the most unprotected parish of Ulster to repeat the tragedy in which Sir Phelim Roe had been, in 1641, the leading performer. The Roman Catholic population, it must be remembered to their credit, never stirred; and no little party stole quietly out in the evening from the gates of a garrison town for a midnight work of blood among an unoffending Protestant people. That there were in various parts of the province, especially in the vicinity of the belligerents, individual cases of oppression, cruelty, treachery, and murder, in which the innocent suffered perhaps as often as the guilty,—cases such as are incident to all wars, and especially to civil wars, which are nearly always cruel wars—it were in vain to deny; but anything like an indiscriminate slaughter of Protestants by Roman Catholics, even at a time when nearly all Ulster was at their feet, was never attempted. That it was ever contemplated there is no evidence, except in the fears of the Protestant population, among whom old memories had not yet died out.

Not only so, but in many instances the Jacobite army treated Protestants who fell into their hands with courtesy and kindness. Captain Henly, a Williamite officer, who was wounded at the passage of the Bann, not only received quarter, but was sent to hospital and nursed by the Irish till he recovered. That Murray's father was allowed to live unhurt in the very neighbourhood of the city all the time of the siege, was in the circumstances an act of generosity, for which the Irish army deserves to receive great credit. Rosen's harshness to the women and children was indeed a cruel and unjustifiable act; but it was a stratagem of war intended to work on the feelings of the garrison, and when it was found that the stratagem failed in its object, the helpless multitude was sent home, and money and provisions were given in compensation to the innocent victims. Tradition tells how some French officers lodged in one of the most ancient and respectable families of the neighbourhood, some miles out of Derry, and not only protected the household, but scrupulously paid for every article that they received. The French ambassador in one of his letters complains that General Hamilton almost every day allowed fifty or a hundred persons to leave the city, when the stern refusal of permission was the only means of compelling the garrison to a speedy surrender.[3] Throughout the country districts many Protestants afterwards had to tell of kindness shown to them on this occasion by their Roman Catholic neighbours. I have pleasure in giving an instance of this from the pen of the late Rev. John Graham. Speaking of the old Irish family, the O'Sheills, Mr. Graham says:—

"One of these living at the time of the siege of Derry, was Jeffrey O'Shiell, P.P. of Clonmany, in the County of Donegal, who was generally kind to his Protestant neighbours in distress; as were also the following parish priests of that community: Denis O'Hagarty, of Templemore, in which the Parish of Templemore is situated; Dermot M'Feely, of Culdaff; Denis M'Colgan, of Carndonagh; Roger O'Hagan, of Moville; Denis M'Closkie, of Banagher; Isaac O'Lynchachan, of Lifford and Strabane; Connougher O'Mungan, of Urney, and Termon O'Mungan; Cornelius O'Cassidy,of Macosquin; and Patrick O'Scullen, of Ballyscullen."[4]

Various instances of the same kind are given by Leslie, who, though a Nonjuror, was an eminent Episcopal theologian.[5] He mentions how the town of Belfast was from the 15th of March under the protection of King James, and that such of the inhabitants of the place as did not flee to Scotland, were treated with kindness and consideration. He records the fact that Mrs. Hawkins, wife of John Hawkins, Esq., a member of the Hillsborough Council, and one of the ten gentlemen excepted from pardon in Tyrconnell Proclamation, was overtaken by a detachment of Hamilton's army at Donaghadee, and, instead of being injured, was suffered without molestation to go aboard her ship by the courtesy of an Irish officer:—

"When the general rout was given to the Protestants in the North of Ireland at Dromore upon the first descent of King James's army, on the 14th of March, 1688/9, and all were flying to the sea as fast as they could, several Protestants fell into the enemy's hand at Donaghadee, a seaport in the County of Down, where they sought opportunity of shipping to have fled out of the kingdom.

"Among these was Mrs. Hawkins, wife to John Hawkins, Esq., of Raffer-Island, in the County of Down, one of the most active of any in the North for the Association;[6] in which cause he was a Colonel, and had his commission from the Prince of Orange, as all the rest had, before he was made a King. He was among the first Associators, and made himself Secretary to the Association carried on at Moira, by the Lord Blayney, Sir Arthur Rawdon, etc. ... No man was more obnoxious to the Irish and to the Government than this Mr. Hawkins, insomuch that he was one of the ten excepted from pardon in the Proclamation of the seventh of March, 1688/9.

"This gentleman's lady, being taken among many others, making her escape at Donaghadee, instead of being plundered, was civilly treated, and suffered to go off to sea, not only herself, but with all her goods, furniture, etc.; and when she offered her coach as a present to Major Colaghan, he refused it, and did not take the worth of a penny from her."[7]

Leslie very properly observes regarding this and other acts of kindness on the part of King James's army:—

"It is just and commendable to give our enemies their due, and not to conceal or lessen what they do worthily, because they are our enemies. Many of the Irish officers were kind to the Protestants, not only in making good their protections to them, but even where they had no protections, and were perfectly at their mercy." The French ambassador was constantly writing home to complain that the King himself frequently damaged his own interests by an over readiness in pardoning his enemies.[8] Whatever his motives, such was the fact.

On the other hand it is a mistake to suppose that King William's officers always treated their own friends with kindness, or even with justice. When Kirke came to Derry after the siege, he ordered, as we have seen, the cattle of the whole surrounding district to be driven into the city, in order to make provisions cheap in the town—an act which King James's army had not ventured on, and of which the Protestant farmers bitterly complained. It is quite manifest that if the Jacobites had been unscrupulous robbers, the Protestant neighbours at the end of a three months' occupation would have had few cattle left for Kirke to drive off. Provisions became for a time plentiful in the city after the siege was raised—a fact which proves that the Irish army did not pursue a policy of wanton destruction, and did not wage war with a population not actually in arms. The Protestants around Belfast often complained that the Irish army inflicted no such sufferings upon them as the English army under Duke Schomberg, which came avowedly for their protection.[9] Every army contains not a few unscrupulous men, with whom it would be unsafe to trust the property, the honour, or the life of others; the only protection of the non-combatant people is that these reckless spirits are officered by gentlemen of character and intelligence, who would scorn to soil their hands with robbery and murder, any further than is demanded by the cruel necessities of war. It is certain that officers of this description were found on both sides in the Irish War of 1689.

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[3] Avaux to Louvois, May 18/8th, 1689.

[4] Ireland Preserved, p. 283. This extract is given by Mr. Graham, on the authority of the copy of a Parliamentary Report from the Bishop of Derry, found among the records of the Diocese in 1824.

[5] See Leslie's Answer to King, pp. 145-160. His authority is confirmed by Avaux, who says, "Belfast and all around Carrickfergus is a very rich country, and the best part of Ireland: it has not been plundered, and it contains many Protestants who are protected by Maxwell, a Scotchman, the governor of Carrickfergus, and a good officer."—To Louvois, 14th Aug., 1689.

[6] See Note, p. 54.

[7] Leslie's Answer to King, p. 161.

[8] Avaux to Louis, from Dublin, May 12/2, 1689.

[9] Leslie, pp. 95 and 160.

William R. Young’s Fighters of Derry has for decades been one of the most overlooked works on the Siege of Derry and as a local genealogical resource. First published in 1932, the book was the product of ten years’ research into identifying participants at the siege which the author undertook when suffering from ill-health in the latter part of his life.

The book is essentially divided into two parts: the first contains 1660 biographical entries relating to the defenders of Derry, tracing, where possible, the family lineage; and the second part includes 352 entries on the Jacobite side. Apart from individual accounts of eminent protagonists in the siege, such as David Cairnes, Rev. George Walker, the Duke of Schomberg, Patrick Sarsfield, etc., there is also background given to many of the most influential families involved in the conflict.